Emotional fitness and leadership with Dr. Emily Anhalt

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Welcome to a new edition of our interview series, where we ask researchers, creators, and entrepreneurs questions about how to make the most of our mind. Very excited to welcome Dr. Emily Anhalt, clinical psychologist, emotional fitness expert, speaker, author, and co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Coa, the world’s first “gym for the mind”.

Emily is on a mission to build a bridge between psychology and business, helping companies and individuals foster a successful work-life harmony. She studied psychology at The University of Michigan, and attained Masters and Doctorate degrees in Clinical Psychology from The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. For the past ten years, Dr. Anhalt has been working clinically with executives, founders, and tech employees, and has conducted extensive research with prominent psychologists and entrepreneurs about how leaders can improve their emotional fitness. Dr. Anhalt has matched more than 500 people into therapy, and her unique perspective has led to work with some of the fastest growing companies in the world.

In this interview, we talked about the concept of emotional fitness, the stigma around mental health, how to build resilience and improve communication, the difference between online and face-to-face mental health support, the power of language, and the unique responsibility leaders have when it comes to taking care of their mental health.

Thank you for joining us, Emily. How did you end up working in the field of mental health? Can you share a little bit about your personal journey?

No mental health professional gets into this work by accident. I think we all have complicated backgrounds that we’re trying to understand in some way, shape or form. Of course I have my share of that, but I was really inspired to dive into psychology starting in high school, with a teacher who showed me that if you know a lot about psychology, you know a little about everything.

It felt like I was learning this language about the world and it was really fascinating to me. So I studied psychology in college, and also philosophy. I think the two are one and the same in some ways. Both are trying to answer many unanswerable questions, but the pursuit itself is beautiful.

I grew up in Silicon Valley. So while I was studying psychology, I was thinking a lot about how some of it applied to the world of entrepreneurs. It felt like there was this particular thread of psychology that runs through a person who decides to be an entrepreneur. And I found that interesting.

So I started specializing in working with entrepreneurs. And through that, what became really apparent is this very reactive culture of mental health in our society. People are made to feel like things have to be completely falling apart to start doing this work. That felt really problematic to me: I compare it to waiting until you have early signs of heart disease to start doing cardio. It’s a lot easier to do this work before you need it. So I wanted to start de-stigmatizing this work, giving permission, and making it a little easier to get started.

I started using the term emotional fitness. I wanted to understand: what is emotional fitness? What does that look like in practice?

I did a big research study, something called an interpretive phenomenological analysis, which is a type of qualitative research where you interview a lot of people, and then you code the interviews for themes that show up amongst them. I interviewed a hundred psychologists and entrepreneurs about what proactive emotional health looks like.

If you asked: “what does physical fitness look like?”, people would probably mention strength, flexibility, eating well, sleeping enough… But with emotional fitness, there isn’t really a very clear answer. How would you know you were sitting across the table from an emotionally fit person?

Out of this research came the seven traits of emotional fitness that I talk about a lot today. The traits are self-awareness, empathy, mindfulness, curiosity, resilience, communication, and play.

Emotional fitness by Dr. Emily Anhalt

I started doing workshops about these traits with tech companies. People were grateful for the permission to think about these things, even though they weren’t necessarily struggling in diagnosable intense ways.

Then, about two years ago, I met my now co-founder Alexa Meyer, who is amazing. The two of us were asking ourselves what it would look like to create the world’s first gym for mental health: where could people come to work on themselves, with the help of a community, without all of the stigma, and feel proud of the work they’re doing on themselves to build emotional strength? We wanted to figure out: what does an emotional pushup look like?

That’s where we are now with Coa. We had a brick and mortar space that was ready to launch when COVID hit. So that’s on hold until it’s safe, but we still plan to open it. We also offer one-on-one therapy matching, and therapist-led emotional fitness classes. And we put together these workouts that people can come and do, all led by therapists within the community.

That’s amazing. Well, what does an “emotional pushup” look like?

Here are 3 “emotional pushups” that people can do to get started with their emotional fitness today:

  1. Build resilience with a self-esteem file. Strong self-confidence is a key ingredient to pushing through setbacks and failure. Unfortunately, we tend to obsess over negative feedback and let positive feedback fly right past us! A self-esteem file is a place to collect all of the positive feedback that comes your way from colleagues, family members, friends, anyone at all! By having it all in one place, you can revisit it when your confidence is low to see that you are having a positive effect on the world.
  2. Increase productivity by scheduling a worry hour. Are anxious thoughts getting in the way of your productivity and ability to enjoy your everyday life? Think about scheduling an hour each day or week that is just for worrying. During that hour, you can worry as much as you want. By having a dedicated space for this feeling, you can focus the rest of your day on other feelings and pursuits.
  3. Improve communication with remojis. Remojis are emojis that you use to convey emotional information quickly online. So much of our communication happens through text these days – but text communication can be tone deaf, and we can misunderstand each other. With your work team, family, friends, or partner, pick emojis that represent emotions you want to convey to each other. Here are a few examples:

👯 I’ve got your back!
🌵 This is a prickly subject
👀 I see how hard you’re working
🙊 I don’t feel like talking yet
🧠 I’m stuck in my head

Remojis seem to be such useful tools, especially because it can be hard to talk about our mental health. You briefly touched upon the stigma surrounding mental health. While it’s socially accepted to say you go to the gym to take care of your physical health, taking care of your mental health is still taboo in many circles.

I think even just language is a really powerful thing. Calling it a gym shifts our perception of what it’s like. With the way that we’re setting it up, we’re trying to really say: “Look, you don’t have to be broken. Nothing has to be wrong with you. You don’t even have to be seriously suffering. If you just want to understand who you are in the world, to level up your relationships, to become a better leader, to be more satisfied with life, then come do this work. And you’re not going to be doing it alone.”

One of our frustrations with mental health as it currently is, is that it’s all hidden away, you know: you go to a therapist’s office via an entrance in the back of the building, and no one looks at each other in the eyes in the waiting room. Although privacy is a really important part of the work, the fact that you’re working on your mental health shouldn’t have to be the secret.

My belief is that stigma is changed through experience. Beliefs are really hard to change just by telling people they should think differently. But by showing them a different experience, you can shift the way people relate to a certain thing. That’s why we make our classes really accessible. They’re affordable, and while they’re not technically therapy, you’re still having a therapeutic experience. People come to check it out and it’s like: “Oh, wait, there are all these really successful, high functioning people around me, maybe this isn’t what I thought it would be.”

Mental health care is easier experienced than explained. So we’re trying to lower the barrier to entry and make it really easy to dive in.

I imagine switching to online has somehow lowered the barrier to entry. Do you think there is an impact on how effective the support can be, depending on whether it’s delivered online or face-to-face? 

I would be completely lying if I said there was no difference. I always say that in-person therapy and text therapy will be the same when real sex and sexting are the same. They’re not the same. That being said, it’s better than nothing, and we’ve put a lot of work into making sure it’s an interactive, experiential, playful, and tailored experience. 

With Coa, you’re not talking to an AI bot. You’re not just texting. You’re not watching a recording of something by yourself. You’re face-to-face in a Zoom room with other people having a real discussion. Everything is alongside other people. But of course, sitting in a room and feeling the energy of other people is a really powerful thing. I think we’re all missing that a lot.

When I think about it, the whole experience is very meta. One of the very things we’re trying to support people with as a company is the struggle people are feeling of suddenly having to do everything remotely. We feel that. And I think that uniquely helps us understand what are the feelings and emotions that we’re trying to support people with.

Ironically, some of the remote offerings we have are about dealing with the fact that everything’s remote. Our mantra is name it, confront it, feel it. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. And that in and of itself makes real change to how we relate to the struggle that we’re having.

That collective support and real conversations sound so powerful. As you’re progressively expanding your reach, do you have any tips or strategies for people who are currently coping on their own to improve their emotional fitness, even if they don’t have access to such powerful resources?

Firstly, I think we all have to confront a deeply felt pressure to turn away from tough feelings instead of turning toward them. The number one step is starting to create spaces where you feel safe to have your feelings.

That might be journaling, finding a great therapist, or finding community places where you feel safe to speak whatever truth you’re struggling with in that moment.

The second thing is that I want to encourage people think more proactively. If you are starting to feel burned out, that’s the time to work on it. Don’t wait until you’ve hit a wall and feel completely out of resources.

That’s great advice. I just want to go back to the beginning of our conversation, where you mentioned entrepreneurs. Do you feel that entrepreneurs have different needs when it comes to emotional fitness?

I have found that there was a particular psychological thread through entrepreneurs, such as perfectionism, having your work be your identity, and imposter syndrome mixed with some narcissism, because you have to believe in something no one else sees yet.

But I think that anyone in a leadership position has unique needs, just like a parent has different needs than someone who doesn’t have kids, because there are people who are taking their cues from you about how to act, what’s okay, and what is the ethos and culture of a particular group or space.

So I think entrepreneurs and anyone in leadership positions have a greater responsibility to work on their mental health, because they are going to affect a lot of other people’s relationship to their own mental health, especially in the workplace. For that reason, we have a track specifically for leaders, for people who want to do this work as it relates to who they are in any kind of leadership position.

Whether they are in a leadership position or not, how can someone support a friend or colleague who starts to show symptoms of burnout?

This is such an important question, and I love that people care about how to support others around them?

The answer might not be super satisfying, but the truth is that the first step might be to accept the limits of agency that we have over other people. We don’t get to choose when other people decide to do this work. It doesn’t really work if a person doesn’t want to do it themselves in the first place. My advice is do your own work, and to do it transparently. Talk about the work you’re doing and why it’s made a difference in your life.

I’ve gotten more than 500 people into therapy at this point in my life. And it never happens from me talking about myself as a therapist. It happens when I talk about myself as a patient, when I say, “Here’s what my therapy was like; here’s this epiphany that I had; here’s what’s shifted, and here’s how my relationships are better; this is when it was really tough and I wanted to quit, and when I didn’t, here’s what I discovered.”

Just by talking about my own work, I’ve noticed that it inspires people around me to feel like they have permission to do their work and that, that you don’t have to be falling apart to try it.

So the advice I give is talk as openly as you feel safe to about the work you’re doing, and then let people know that when they’re ready, that you’d be happy to support them in moving forward; whether that looks like just giving them a space to ask questions, or whether it looks like in my case, for example, helping people to find a great therapist of their own.

Amazing, that’s very helpful, thank you. What are the best places where people can go and follow your work? 

Thank you. Everything about Coa is at joincoa.com, and @joincoa is our social media handle for everything.